Startup Togather thinks crowdsourcing is key to profitable author book tours

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It has never been clear whether author book tours are a worthwhile investment. Fewer publishers are shelling out to send their authors across the country these days — what’s the point if you’re going to sit in an empty bookstore for hours and only sell three copies? — and BookTour.com shut down last year, conceding that “fewer author tours and changes in book marketing budgets have made our company financially unviable.”

Now Brooklyn-based startup Togather (which is not related to this company) hopes to make author book tours more of a sure thing by adding a group-buying dynamic that requires people to commit and buy a book before an author event takes place.

Togather’s founder is 34-year-old Andrew Kessler, author of the book Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission, which was published by independent publisher Pegasus Books in 2011. Kessler, then the creative director at Brooklyn-based digital agency Huge — which is funding Togather through Huge Labs, its startup incubator for employee projects — says he got a lot of attention for the book (for example, he opened a West Village pop-up bookstore that sold only his book) but “getting a massive amount of media didn’t translate into sales. There was no one thing that, the more I did it, the more copies the book sold. Social media felt successful, but I wasn’t selling books.” So he had the idea of a Groupon-like model for author tours, where if a certain number of people commit to buying a book or attending an event, the event is on.

“This essentially closes the loop on all the social stuff everyone’s doing and turns it into book sales,” Kessler says. “It’s outbound marketing that has a sale at the end of it.”

Togather focuses on three types of events: “Book purchase” events where everyone buys a book in advance; free events where an author doesn’t necessarily have to sell books but wants to know how many people will be there; and ticketed events where the host charges a fee for attendance but doesn’t necessarily require a book purchase.

Anyone — an individual, community group (like a reading group) or organization like a bookstore — can serve as a “host,” put together an event proposal and send it to an author who is on Togather. The author can negotiate — for, say, a stipend or for travel costs to be covered in addition to books bought — and once the author and host agree on the proposal, the host is responsible for getting it out to the community. When enough people agree to come, buy a book in advance or do whatever else is required, the event is on and the author attends.

It’s conceivable that Togather could be used for other types of events, but it is focused on authors for now, in part because a key component of its revenue model is that it acts as a bookstore. Togather has a fulfillment deal with Ingram, where it is buying authors’ books wholesale, selling them at list price and shipping them to buyers. Let’s say an author on Togather agrees to hold a local author event if 25 people buy books in advance. Once 25 people have agreed and put down their credit card numbers, the deal is on and Togather ships the books to customers in advance of the event. It makes revenue from the books, and also takes five percent of sales for ticketed events.

“We want authors to be able to make a living and sell more books through an activity that they control or that their publicist can help them with,” Kessler says. “This is our focus for now.”

At launch today, Togather is still fairly small and is primarily a tool for authors. “You can sign up as a fan on Monday, but you will only be able to book or attend events with the select group of authors already on board,” Kessler says. He says Togather is adding more authors as it can, but “we need to build up the author base and reach critical mass before it becomes fun and has a lot of variety.”

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